As slowly as it arrived, our sledding season was also slow to depart. We could still run on sleds out of here until early April – without it being truly horrendous as it has been at the tail end of some winters. Our plentiful snow gave us a nice base and the strong winds we had endured for a spell had packed our home trails well.
But now, it’s all gone. The very last snow disappeared this morning from the sheltered, shady spot it had been hiding in and the days are already appreciably longer and warmer. It’s time to start thinking about the list of chores that need done before we can start training dogs again in the Fall. We have trees and shrubs to plant, maybe a spot of vegetable gardening, some new dog houses to build, a few dogs to be spayed and neutered, the list seems to grow daily.
Break up was perhaps not quite as bad as we feared, given how much snow there was to melt. The re-grade of the driveway following the rebuild of the house after the Sockeye Fire definitely helped carry away a lot of the water. A few of the dogs had to endure a number of very splashy days, as despite 5 sump pumps running in their pen, the icy waters continued to rise and gave them plenty of experience of running around in “overflow”. Now, the yard is dry and sandy again and the first holes have already been dug, some several feet deep as the dogs switch from sled dog to pet dog mode for the next few months. The transition period, as they no longer get to go running with the team, can be a bit little crazy. Fit, strong dogs really need to be able to burn off some that energy and ours are always happy to get turned loose every day in the exercise yard and tear about, chasing, wrestling and playing. As the temperatures increase, they tend to spend more time sunbathing than chasing.
Once again, this winter we didn’t quite manage to get to the targets we had set. We missed making the races we were aimed at, and we also ended up short of the training mileages we had scheduled. On the plus side, we integrated the new dogs we bought in January and we still managed to get out and enjoy a whole lot of the Alaskan countryside behind a dogteam. We had visitors to stay, amazing northern lights to view, deep cold to deal with, and a whole lot of dogs to love, look after and worry about. We have always said it is the dogs that drive everything we do.
As we look back at another season, we have made more memories that we will cherish for ever, and we have made plans to make even more. Of course, nothing is guaranteed and we are painfully aware of that, but suffice to say, we’re looking forward to the seasons to come and being blessed to have the dogs that we do.
In years past, and as recently as last year, we debated having a handler to help with the kennel chores and to assist with the running of the dogs. In the end, our usual reluctance won the day and we didn’t actually make any attempt to find anyone. There were quite a few times this winter, as I shoveled snow from gates and doghouses that I would have happily revisited that decision. I sometimes wonder if the fact that we only think about looking for a handler at some point in the summer, means we have forgotten just how much my back hurts from digging snow and how much work is involved in caring for all the dogs when it is cold, snowy and dark. So, this marks a departure from our usual deliberations. We have “decided” that we will actively look for a handler for next winter. To be fair, having decided to look is still quite a distance from actually looking, but it is a start. I guess the next step will be to write an advert. I wonder how long I can put that off.
In May 2014, I made what I thought would be my last long run to collect dogs from JJ and Susan Bragg at Seppala Kennels in Manitoba. I’d made several trips over the preceding years, and was sure that I wouldn’t be driving there again. And I was sort of right……..
Early in January, the only other kennel in the US of A that has Bragg’s Seppala Siberian Sleddogs announced that they were looking to sell their dogs for personal reasons. My initial interest was tempered by the fact that Seppness Kennel is located in Minnesota, and they wanted a group of the dogs to go together and within a fairly short space of time. My wife, who really should know better, agreed that we should make enquiries and before you know it, we’ve bought 10 new dogs and I’m loading the truck for another long drive to collect new dogs.
I’ve driven the Alcan 5 times, in May, June, Sept and October. I’ve also driven to a race in Whitehorse in early March, but the prospect of driving across a huge swathe of North America in the height of winter was a little daunting – to put it mildly. As well as all my usual precautions, I packed extra, extra winter gear, 2 sets of snowchains, a couple of snow shovels, a towrope, a spare towrope, spare fuel, renewed my membership of AAA and charged up my Delorme Inreach Explorer, which is a satellite tracked SOS device. To make things even more “interesting,” the day I left it was a balmy -35F, and when I spoke to my wife a couple of days later, it had dropped to -45F, a temperature where all sorts of issues start arising, including our propane regulator freezing which means no fuel for the furnace – ergo no heat. Not a problem for me, as I was well to the west of the cold air and was actually enjoying unseasonably warm weather. For most of my trip, the temperatures ranged between a pleasant 10F and a very warm 41F.
There are a couple of differences between driving the Alcan in January and June, unsurprisingly.
It’s dark – a lot of the time.
It’s colder, much, much colder
Alaska doesn’t bother plowing out it’s rest stops or opening the public restrooms
There’s no-one else on the road
The scenery is just as stunning, but looks much more desolate and daunting.
Due to there only being one road out of the State, navigation is not really an issue, the biggest of my concerns is always making sure that Big Blue has enough fuel to make it to the next gas station. My most frequent complaint about my beloved truck is it’s truly appalling fuel consumption rate. The first day went almost exactly to schedule, and I duly pulled into my planned rest-stop a couple of hours east of Whitehorse around 2.00 am and grabbed a few hours of sleep, cocooned in my -40 rated sleeping bag, which easily coped with keeping me warm – if not a little too warm.
Driving conditions were pretty good – I was very pleasantly surprised – I’d almost venture to suggest it was better than the road is during the summer. Accordingly, I made great time and had made it to Dawson Creek at a reasonable enough time to make it worth getting a hotel room. And thus, my schedule was set. Drive great distances during the day and sleep in a comfy bed at night. Day 3 saw me in Saskatoon, Day 4 was Fargo, North Dakota and an easy Day 5 was just 350 miles to my destination.
After spending some time getting to meet my new dogs, collecting their paperwork and loading them into the truck, it was time to reverse direction and head back north. The trip home is always longer with dogs. I tend to try and develop a routine with them, I prefer to give them smaller meals or snacks each time we stop, rather than load them up with a full meal a couple of times a day. It also takes me nearly an hour to drop the dogs, I know of guys that can drop and reload an entire truck full inside 20 minutes. I’m never in that much of a hurry and I’d rather the dogs got the chance to stretch, play a bit and get some fresh air. My route home was a bit less direct than the trip out, and I had planned to take the opportunity to go visit Jeff and Susan in Manitoba as who knows when I’ll be back that way again. It was a little out of the way, but as it turns out, it was a good plan, as it enabled me to transport an older dog from Seppness back to Seppala Kennels, where he was originally from. Another of their dogs, Tyna, seemed to be pleased to see them both and we agreed that she should stay with them – the first dog to greet her, was her mother, one of Jeff’s favourites – Little Lizzy Lineout.
After an all too brief visit, it was time once more to hit the road. From here, I feel like I could almost drive back home blindfold. Probably not a good idea, so I resisted the temptation to try. The weather continued to co-operate, apart from a cold patch between Saskatoon and Edmonton, where the dog drop was a little chilly at -3F. I found it cold after the previous warmer days – and the dogs seemed to find it cold too, considering the Minnesota winters hadn’t been too fierce latterly. I did wonder how they were going to find life in Alaska as I watched them doing the “stand on 2 paws ” dance.
When I travel with the dogs, I find myself unwilling to sleep in hotels. I always have the fear that something bad will happen and so I end up staying in the truck. The advantage is that I tend to get much more driving done, the downside is that the interior of my truck becomes a bit of a bombsite, with empty candy wrappers, soda cans and other assorted goodies scattered across the cab. Add in all my spare clothes, blankets, sleeping bag, pillow and goodness knows what all else, well, it is a surprise there’s space for me in there too.
As I continued westwards, I calculated that I’d make Whitehorse at a reasonable time of day and decided to see if I could cadge a free meal and maybe even a bed from my buddy Jacob at Grizzly Valley. Happily, things worked out perfectly, and I got a wonderful meal, a fabulous sleep and fun evening with people I am happy to call friends. A leisurely start the next day and things were looking good for an easy last day. Until I hit Haines Junction and a blizzard. The next couple of hours were the most difficult driving of the entire trip. Heavy snows, 50 mile an hour wind gusts and zero visibility. Fortunately, a snowplow went by and I followed him as best I could for a while. I decided to stop and drop the dogs at Kluane Lake, my favourite spot on the trip and during that break, the weather cleared and my unseasonably good travelling conditions returned.
An uneventful border crossing and an easy drive over the Tok cutoff saw me catch an early breakfast at Eklutna Lodge, and the start of a sprinkling of snowflakes. These continued to fall and get heavier until by the time I reached Palmer, things were a bit chaotic. People in Alaska tend to drive the same way all the time – no matter the weather conditions – and not all of them are necessarily that good at it. The last 50 miles of the journey was a little stressful and I was very happy to pull into our driveway, through a foot of new powdery snow and finally be home.
I’m sure the dogs were happy to be out of the truck too. It took a little time to get everyone into their spots, a couple of feet of snow had fallen since I left and some dog houses needed to be found and dug out. Now, 2 weeks later, it feels like they have always been here and I’m looking forward to getting them out on the trail at some point in the near future.
We’re at that stage of the season where in good years we’re already running on sleds. On bad years, we’re still a couple of weeks away. The latest we’ve had to wait was until 4 December, that was our first winter here and my reticence was partly because I was still sort of expecting groomed trails and a good base to hold a snow hook. After a few days of seeing teams running by on sleds, I came to accept that it was time for us too.
This year, not only have we not had any snow to speak of, but the 10 day forecast doesn’t show any on the way either. For us, and many others, that means many more miles on the 4 wheelers, running the same loops – on the upside, our teams are all getting plenty of practice at passing. The swamps are frozen, for the most part, and a few teams have apparently been utilising some of the trails on them, it provides a welcome change of scenery for those hardcore, long distance guys.
We’re not quite on that schedule, in fact, I’m a little behind where I’d like to be at this stage of the year. But, the dogs are looking good, and we’ve managed to find a couple of leaders among our young dogs. Taran is proving to be best of them, and I hope he will continue to shine. There is a lot of pressure on leaders, they are expected to set the pace, follow directions, ignore distractions and generally be the example that the rest of the team should follow. So far, he is doing all of those things – in fact he is a little too smart for his own good sometimes. He had figured out most of the turns we take and on occasion, started to turn the team before we actually reached the intersection. At least he came to realise that not every driveway was worth exploring ! He has also learnt that it usually is best to wait until we get to the corner, before taking it. Amongst the established group of leaders, the males Quiz, Kaz, Kalekh are proving to be good teachers, and the females, Rosie, Lily and Ruby, not so much. It seems the girls consider having youngsters beside them, beneath their dignity.
Just in case anyone thinks that all that is involved in having a sled dog kennel is constant trips to the vet and the ability to function normally with a broken heart and tears rolling down your cheeks, I’d like to point out that, contrary to the apparent evidence of this blog, it actually isn’t just like that. It is like that sometimes, a bit too often, truth be told, the price of keeping all your dogs for their whole lives.
However, the real reason for having a sled dog kennel, is to run dogs. And with ending of summer and the beginning of autumn, the season for running draws ever closer. With our heavy coated dogs, we’ve had to watch as our neighbour took his team out in temperatures that would have had our guys frazzled and fried. Daily, we wait for the weather forecast and each morning, I wonder if today will finally be cool enough. Roughly speaking, our cut-off is 50F – and depending on the humidity, it might even need to be a little cooler than that. Our equipment is ready, all replaced after the Sockeye Fire destroyed everything, the 4 wheeler is fuelled and we’re just sitting, twiddling our thumbs and watching the thermometer. Until……………
Yep, a couple of weeks ago, we started training. That’s actually pretty good for us, I’ve seen seasons where we’ve not been out till pretty late in September, so to get out now is great. With all of the drama of last year, we actually hardly ran at all, so everyone basically had a year off = technically 16 months off, I guess. Plus new boy Niko hadn’t run at all and youngster Davaar was just a pup, so at 20 months old, he is getting a late start. Queen’s first litter only ran in early Fall training in 2014, – are you getting the feeling I’m laying the groundwork for a multitude of excuses as to why training hasn’t been the smoothest ?
Actually, that would be terribly unfair on the dogs. After everyone has had 8 runs, we’ve lost the sum total of 2 chewed necklines, which I consider perfectly acceptable, given the excitement levels at hook-up time. Plus, necklines are way cheaper to replace than just about every other piece of equipment !
Generally, I like a fairly calm team, enthusiastic but controlled. With so many youngsters on the team, we’ve got lots of enthusiasm and maybe just a little less control over that wildness. However, even in this short space of time, we’re already seeing the young dogs picking up on the cues of the older dogs in many areas – except when it comes to taking a break. We’ve also been trying to evaluate some of those younger guys with a view to finding new leaders. Happily, it seems like we have at least a couple of potential candidates and we’ll work with those dogs in the hope that we will find one, or more, trustworthy, reliable lead dog.
These first few runs are always interesting, there’s a lot to teach the dogs, even if that is just refreshing their memories, and reminding them of the good habits we’re all trying to develop . Any moments of unhappiness I had after one of these early runs was quickly dismissed as I was reminded by my wife that the last run I had, with the team I was wishfully comparing the current unruly mob with, actually led to them breaking my leg, so maybe these young guys weren’t quite so bad after all.
At the end of the day, we run dogs to have fun, and hopefully, the dogs have fun too. The love and bonds we build with them, lasts their entire lives, as all our dogs stay with us for all of their days. The retired guys who want to, move into the house and those who would still rather live outside, get regularly dragged indoors to see if they’ve changed their minds yet.
Boof seems to have taken to life as a retired house dog pretty well.
For all of the tears and hurt we feel when they pass, the joy, love and companionship they give us, far outweighs that pain.
On Friday, we lost Seven, following a prolonged battle with a hemangiosarcoma that had claimed her spleen in January, and was already spreading through her body then. Her diagnosis was not good and we were told to expect her to be unable to see out February, if she even lasted that long. Seven was always a determined little soul, and she, like her sister Fina , refused to bow down to cancer and both confounded and delighted us by bouncing back and being her usual, happy, shouty self all Spring and Summer. She had blips, she had her moments, but she never changed her happy outlook and she never stopped being a momma’s girl.
Through our tears, as we held her and said goodbye, we mourned not just her loss, but the passing of a hugely saddening milestone for us. Seven was born in September 2003, as part of our very first litter, and all 8 pups stayed with us. They changed our lives and were truly special. As a litter, they were together from the moment they were born, until each one of them died. Their bond was incredible, their love for each other and for us has always been a yardstick that we try to live up to.
Seven was a fairly confident character, she always knew exactly what she wanted to happen and usually, that involved telling her brothers what she wanted them doing too. She wasn’t the best sled dog in the world, but when she put her mind to it, she proved that she could actually be astoundingly good. The fact that she chose not to, on occasion was a source of frustration, but her happy nature meant that she was always forgiven her misdemeanours.
Being a house dog suited her down to the ground. No more standing in dirt, or having to splash through puddles, she had her favourite beds, and enjoyed lording it over the other house dogs from her vantage point when she was up on the sofa. She loved cuddles from my wife, and she would accept them from me, she would lie for hours in the Spring to be groomed when her winter coat was coming out, but she wasn’t so keen on you touching her feet and as for clipping claws, well………… let’s just say it didn’t happen often.
Goodbye dear, sweet Seven. May you find your rightful, restful place amongst your brothers and sister over the Rainbow Bridge. Take another little piece of our hearts with you to share with all the others who you are going to rejoin.
“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” V Harrison
It’s been a week since Echo died. It’s been a week of unhappy days and unsettled nights. His circle is empty, his house unused and as I feed and work with the other dogs in the Happy Crew, his space is a constant reminder of his absence. I have even topped up his water bucket a couple of times, force of habit or just flat out denial that he is gone.
It’s take me until now to write about him, to be able to see the words on the screen through the tears.
Echo came to us in May 2011, on my second trip to Seppala Kennels in Manitoba to bring home 5 dogs. Seemingly, on the spur of the moment, Jeff gifted Echo to me as I was preparing to leave on the long drive home. As generous as the gesture was, standing next to this large white dog, who was perpetually on the move and had managed to turn his circle into what looked like a bottomless mudpit, and liked to coat himself liberally in the stuff, gave me cause to question his motives – for the briefest of moments – before hastily putting Echo in the truck in case Jeff thought about changing his mind.
During the long drive home, Echo confirmed all my initial impressions of him. Large, strong, vociferous, huge appetite with a boisterous, ebullient personality. Over the years he has been with us, he was a fixture on our team because of all of those traits. His enthusiasm and drive was always evident, and he became a solid, reliable swing dog, backing up his leaders and driving the team forward.
Off the team, he was a much loved member of the “Happy Crew” and managed to devote much of his free time to digging large holes and appearing happiest when emerging from a deep cavern, covered in sand, his huge smile evident, and looking forward to inhaling any snacks you happened to have on you.
His diagnosis of round cell tumours, that seemed to spring up almost overnight, and multiply at any amazing rate, and defeat any treatments that our vets tried, caused him to become a shadow of himself. Our huge dog that never flinched from anything, became increasingly painful and body sensitive, refused food and was becoming ever weaker and thinner. We reached the point where it was apparent there was to be no recovery, no miracle and our love for Echo and his indomitable spirit was no match for his illness. Holding him close as he passed, we whispered calming words, and hoped that he could forgive us.
Run free Echo, may your paths be clear, may your snacks be endless and may your foodbowl always be filled.
Readers with better memories than me will doubtless recall the pleasure with which we related the arrival of Queen’s small litter of just 2 puppies. We noted how easy it was to take care of those little girls which left more time for the loving and playing with, rather than tidying, cleaning and generally being their servant. We also imagined that Queen had to be finding the raising of her 2 little angels somewhat less of a task than the 6 she had in her first litter, three years ago.
Fast forward 5 months, and now we’re not so sure……………. and Queen definitely isn’t convinced. Of course, usually by now, the pups have been moved into their own space and have learnt to co-operate, be sociable and just generally get on with each other. Their mothers have been returned to “gen pop” and the youngsters are safely ensconced in a secure pen until they too get to join the adult dogs.
With the house rebuild going on, and the subsequent disruption of our outside spaces and routines, Queen, Kenzi and Bella have stayed together. And those two little darlings have become rather over-confident and a bit disrespectful in their dealings with their mother. We’re fairly sure Queen didn’t put up with half the nonsense she does from these 2, when she had the 6, but perhaps that’s understandable. If she had, I’m not sure she would have made it out in one piece!
I don’t mind a bit of rough play – and the pups do know about bite control, because they are exceedingly gentle with us (if a little boisterous sometimes), but my goodness, they don’t half terrorise their mum. When we take them out for their walks, poor Queen runs for her life, as the 2 girls hunt her, knock her down and then proceed to drag her about until she squeals.
It’s not done with meanness, just an inappropriate amount of over-exuberance. The pups do know how to behave and are much more respectful of the other adult females they have met.
These two are both much more “bouncy” than our other Seppala pups – they both seem to spend as much time on just their back legs, as they do on all fours.
They are pretty confident around people, having interacted with all of the different guys working on our house over the months, but there is still a healthy degree of wariness around people they consider strangers.
I have a feeling Queen is going to be very happy to move back in with the adults and her two little darlings will doubtless discover that not all dogs are quite as forgiving as their mother.